the fussy, blond, larcenous heroine of an English children’s story

2007-01-08

in Daily updates, Science

Peacock near The Trout

For the vast majority of the four billion year history of the Earth, it would have been a very inhospitable place for human beings indeed. An atmosphere with oxygen in it, the existence of essential ecosystems (most of them composed of microorganisms), the presence of an ultraviolet-blocking ozone layer: all of these are essential to human life, and all are temporary and largely the product of random events. So too, a huge number of other considerations, from the ambient temperature to the level of volcanic activity. Of course, if the situation were different, beings would have evolved in a different way. There are, no doubt, other forms of metabolism; likewise, it is possible to endure all kinds of environments and ecological surroundings. This is where the anthropic principle and the Goldilocks fallacy collide.

The Goldilocks fallacy is to observe that if the conditions of the Earth were different, human beings as they are could not live here. The faulty conclusion drawn is that these ‘perfect’ conditions could not, or have not, arisen by accident. This is akin to seeing a large number of black moths sitting on black trees in England during the 19th century and stressing how perfectly matched they were. Of course they were, because soot from factories had blackened the trees, allowing black moths to hide from predators more effectively than their lighter brethren, who duly saw their numbers reduced. The situation establishes which beings will do well, and ensures that those who do not will disappear. This was Darwin’s great insight.

A broader version of the Goldilocks fallacy stresses how unlikely the development of life in the first place was, then uses that as evidence for divine creation. The first response to that is to wonder how unlikely life really is. Life, at the lowest level, is something that can take what is in the environment, then make copies of itself using those materials. Prions (the replicating molecules that cause mad cow disease) are a bit like crystals: they reproduce themselves on the basis of coming into contact with the right materials. Given millions of billions of galaxies, hundreds of billions of stars per galaxy, and an unknown but massive number of planets, there is certainly a lot of chemistry going on. Given what chemists have cooked up using a few basic organic molecules and lightening in a closed environment, I would be personally astonished if at least single-celled life forms did not exist elsewhere in our galaxy, much less in the observable universe.

The last step in the logical chain is to consider the very real possibility that our universe is only one of an infinite number that could exist. It is also entirely possible that others do exist. Some universes will have life forms in them who can putter about and strangle each other and write blog entries. Others will not, but there is nobody reporting on them. As such, the puttering, strangling, blogging beings who marvel at their own existence may be rather missing the point.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan Laing January 8, 2007 at 11:58 pm

It is rather missing the point of the studdering bloggers to marval at their own existence – but not because there is a possible scientistic explanation. (It’s not scientific if it’s not testable, right?) Questions of why are we here, what are we, what is existence, these arn’t questions that science awnsers (and if it does, it does so shallowly and fails to satisfy the yearning of those who wish to known). Of course, religion doesn’t satisfy these questions either when it imposes dogmatic awnsers to fundamental questions. Both religion and science are the stiffling of thought, but on different fronts.

Tristan Laing January 9, 2007 at 12:14 am

The principal issue is how we deal with the fact that science is not ontology because it is ruled by usefulness, and religion is ontology but badly so because it works in dogmas and doesn’t allow ontological questions.

Brett January 9, 2007 at 9:56 am

Its interesting that you blogged about this Milan. I am actually reading a book from my favorite author right now, John Updike on the exact same premise. Its called “Rogers Version”. Highly recomend even though im only a quarter of the way through but it is basically about a young man who using the same Goldilocks fallacy gets a grant to use computer technology to try and prove the existence of god….very interesting book from an amazing author.(also check out two of his other books, Brazil and The Centaur)

Milan January 9, 2007 at 6:33 pm

“Astronomers have come up with an improved method of looking for extraterrestrial life with an Earth-like civilization. Theorist Avi Loeb proposes to use instruments like the Low Frequency Demonstrator (LFD) of the Mileura Wide-Field Array (MWA), an Australian facility for radio astronomy currently under construction. The array could (theoretically) detect civilizations broadcasting in the same frequencies as our own society. From the article: ‘Loeb and Zaldarriaga calculate that by staring at the sky for a month, the MWA-LFD could detect Earth-like radio signals from a distance of up to 30 light-years, which would encompass approximately 1,000 stars. More powerful broadcasts could be detected to even greater distances. Future observatories like the Square Kilometer Array could detect Earth-like broadcasts from 10 times farther away, which would encompass 100 million stars. ‘ The original paper describes the details.”

tony January 10, 2007 at 9:04 pm

I’m not quite sure why it’s easier to believe in the very real possibility of an infinite number of other universes than the one we know about, than it is to believe in God, who at least (some would say) has provided some evidence of his existence (unlike the conjectural infinite other universes).

But this is clearly a “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” kind of question. ;-)

Milan January 10, 2007 at 9:15 pm

Tony,

God is clearly easy to believe in: the vast majority of people do.

The question is what makes God more probable than the Flying Spaghetti Monster or any other untestable theory about the origin of the world.

Milan January 10, 2007 at 9:47 pm

Also, the alternate universes upon which the anthropic principle rests need not be actual. The point is that there are hypothetical lifeless universes (where there would be nobody to report on the situation) and hypothetical universes with life. The observation of the existence of life is thus non-surprising.

island January 11, 2007 at 10:51 am

The clueless meet the ideologically motivated… lol

tony January 11, 2007 at 11:24 am

Belief in God is not a “theory about the origin of the world” – for that kind of thing we use scientists. Though I suppose that makes me ideologically suspect to many who claim to be Christians and would say I’m not one.

I’d also strongly deny there is anything untestable about God. Faith tests him all the time, every day.

If there is a next time (?) that OxBloggers meet, maybe we should agree not to tiptoe around each other, but actually tell each other what we think. In the nicest possible way, of course!

Milan January 11, 2007 at 1:46 pm

Tony,

None of the above is directly an argument against the existence of God. It is simply an analysis of why the supposed perfection of the world is more easily explicable by other means (of course, saying “more easily” brings us into the realm of heuristic analysis and varying ideals of what constitutes proof).

Likewise, I do not doubt that faith affects people every day. I suspect it did when they believed in the Norse gods or the Greek gods as well.

As for OxBloggers’ meetings, I am unlikely to organize any more. The last few have not been well attended.

island January 11, 2007 at 3:48 pm

So many screwed up ideas… where to begin… where to begin… ?

The Goldilocks fallacy is to observe that if the conditions of the Earth were different, human beings as they are could not live here. The faulty conclusion drawn is that these ‘perfect’ conditions could not, or have not, arisen by accident.

No that’s the most apparent implication that guided PHYSICISTS to the strong anthropic principle in the first place. Ignoring it because creationists abuse this feature of the universe, only makes you willfully ignorant of the most apparent implication of the evidence. An antifanatic, in other words…

A broader version of the Goldilocks fallacy stresses how unlikely the development of life in the first place was, then uses that as evidence for divine creation… […]… I would be personally astonished if at least single-celled life forms did not exist elsewhere in our galaxy, much less in the observable universe.

Me too, especially since the goldilocks enigma applies to a whole “layer” of similarly evolved galaxies, and SCIENTISTS don’t use the FACT for anything except science.

http://www.amazon.com/Goldilocks-Enigma-Paul-Davies/dp/0713998830

… and the list goes on.

Go ahead, dare me to prove it.

island January 11, 2007 at 3:49 pm
island January 11, 2007 at 4:00 pm

No that’s false. Did you not see that I was responding directly to a statement?

OHHHHHH… you forgot that part.

R.K. January 11, 2007 at 3:57 pm

@island

Go ahead, dare me to prove it.

It is actually very difficult to understand what you are trying to say. Comments like: “Me too, especially since the goldilocks enigma applies to a whole “layer” of similarly evolved galaxies, and SCIENTISTS don’t use the FACT for anything except science” are difficult to refute, because they are incomprehensible.

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